Oftentimes, Pilates and yoga get lumped in the same category. And that’s understandable—they’re both mind-body practices, offering a low-impact way to cross-train. And you can even find combos of the two training methods, like PiYo and Yogilates.

But if you’ve ever wondered what the differences are between the two workouts—because there are major differences—and which one is right for you, we’ve got your ultimate guide to both Pilates and yoga. As a runner, you can benefit from each. Here’s what to know.

Pilates vs Yoga: The Similarities

Yoga and Pilates have similarities in that they both focus on proper breathing techniques, offer a low-impact form of exercise (meaning no jumping—you’ll always have two feet on the ground), and you can tailor each practice to different fitness levels, whether you’re a beginner or advanced athlete. Plus, you can do both Pilates and yoga with minimal equipment—just your mat and time to focus on your movement.

Even better: Both Pilates and yoga offer research-backed health benefits. For example, a study by researchers from the New York University Grossman School of medicine found that yoga has the potential to reduce anxiety. Another study published in the European Journal of General Cardiology in 2014 highlights yoga’s effectiveness at reducing risk factors of heart disease.

As for Pilates, a study published in Frontiers in Neurology in 2021 says the practice can promote muscle strength, balance, and flexibility.

Another systematic review and meta-analysis published in PLoS One in 2021 says that both practices, Pilates and yoga, may help older women maintain bone mineral density and that these forms of exercise are beneficial for strength and balance.

So which practice should you choose and how do they differ? We spoke with experts in each discipline to breakdown the specifics.

How did Pilates start and what’s it all about?

Pilates was originally developed by Joseph Pilates (hence the name) as a rehabilitative method. According to the Pilates foundation, Pilates attached bed springs to hospital beds (of patients unable to walk) to help support patients’ limbs. Much of the equipment he developed is still in use today in studios everywhere.

When Pilates moved to New York City in 1923 he opened the first official Pilates studio, which became popular among dancers. Today you can find Pilates studios all over the country.

Today’s Pilates classes focus on moving through shortened ranges of motion (think pulses), as well as performing isometric holds. Each exercise relies heavily on core strength and being able to maintain a strong, solid midsection as you work through each pose.

Pilates also mostly focuses on activating muscles while stretching them, says 500-hour certified Pilates instructor, Abby Suskin of Brooklyn, New York and founder of Pilates With Abs. “Pilates is a super efficient workout because when you contract muscles at their end range—or their lengthened position—you’re also creating stronger and more flexible muscles,” she says.

The major benefits of Pilates include:

  • Core strength
  • Total body strength
  • Balance and posture
  • Working on proper breathing techniques
  • Injury prevention and injury rehabilitation

    What is a Pilates class like?

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    Some Pilates classes are done on a mat and may include props, like a ball, band, ring, or foam roller, Suskin explains. “Mat Pilates is also traditionally a series of 34 movements developed by Pilates that constitute a total-body workout using only bodyweight as resistance,” she says.

    Other classes involve a reformer. A reformer is a traditional piece of Pilates equipment that looks like a moving mat with springs, pulleys, ropes, and a sliding carriage. On the reformer, your core is challenged by balancing on the moving mat while using your arms and legs against the resistance of the springs. In a group class, you’ll generally lie down, kneel, and stand on the reformer to challenge your core from different angles, Suskin says.

    “Both [mat and reformer classes] focus on resistance training, either using bodyweight or springs to strengthen and stretch muscles simultaneously, while also challenging core strength,” says Suskin.

    What makes Pilates stand out from yoga is that it has more of a focus on resistance training, particularly when using the reformer or even when incorporating light weights or bands into a mat class. Pilates incorporates this resistance into functional movement patterns or those you practice in everyday life, Suskin explains. “You’ll see everyday movements like squats, planks, and overhead reaches in a Pilates class,” she adds.

    For those who haven’t taken a Pilates class before, Suskin says a reformer-style session is probably the way to go. “Because the reformer has the moving mat and added springs and straps, it’s easier to isolate muscles for strengthening or stretching, so in some ways it’s better for beginners or those recovering from injury when used one-on-one with a Pilates teacher,” Suskin says.

    An example of a move that isolates muscles better on the reformer versus the mat is leg circles, Suskin says. “You draw circles with your legs by pushing into the straps and the exercise focuses on increasing hip range of motion, hamstring stretching, and core stability,” she says. (The same exercise can be done on the mat, but without the assistance of the straps, which means it becomes an abdominal- and hip flexor-focused exercise.)

    Suskin says the intensity of a Pilates class can vary, depending on the type of Pilates (mat versus reformer) and the instructor, but you can expect a lot of total-body work and a big core burn.

    “Pilates can be dialed up or down in terms of intensity, which is one of its perks,” Suskin says. “While you’ll hardly ever see plyometric movements like jumping in Pilates, you’ll definitely break a sweat in a more athletic Pilates class by incorporating movements like planks, squats, and lunges that challenge your entire body.”

    Most classes also include a small number of people, so you do get extra attention from the instructor, helping you master proper form as you go.

    Why is Pilates good for runners?

    As a runner you need full range of motion through your stride and strength through that stride, and Pilates helps you build that mobility and strength.

    Core stability, a signature pay-off of Pilates, is also super important for runners to maintain an upright posture on the road, as well as to run efficiently. A classic move, known as the Pilates hundred—in which you maintain a hollow-hold-like position while pumping the arms and focusing on the breath—is a good example of a Pilates exercise that would benefit runners’ core strength and endurance.

    Pilates is also a great way to strengthen other muscles runners rely on. “Runners have a lot of power in quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors, but if you never work those muscles at their full range, you miss out on a lot of potential power and can be setting yourself up for injury,” Suskin says. “Doing a simple move like a glute bridge in Pilates is perfect for helping runners with flexibility and balanced strength, because it will stretch tight quads and hip flexors while also strengthening weak glutes and hamstrings,” she adds.

    Runners also can benefit from the breath work that is instilled in Pilates classes, as you’ll often start each class with a breathing warmup to help you get connected to your core. As Suskin says, “breath is one of the pillars of Pilates because it is directly connected to core activation.”

    “Pilates teachers will also cue students to exhale throughout class during the more challenging phase of the exercise to encourage core activation and stability,” she adds.

    How did yoga start and what’s it all about?

    Yoga’s roots trace back some 5,000 years to India. It’s considered not only a physical practice, but also a spiritual one.

    Yoga is a discipline rooted in meditative elements, and the connection of breath and body. Yoga means to yoke or unite—body, breath, and mind. The goal of a yogi is often to still the mind and find harmony between their physical and mental state.

    In general, yoga is a practice of asanas (or specific postures) that are linked to breath (pranayama). While yoga started as more of a mind-focused practice, today’s classes include more physical elements. Now there are many different styles of yoga for all fitness levels and preferences, including types like hatha, vinyasa, power, yin, ashtanga, and Iyengar. There are also more modern styles like hot yoga, chair yoga, and restorative yoga.

    The major benefits of yoga include:

    • Mindfulness and relaxation
    • Promoting balance
    • Flexibility
    • Learning proper breathing techniques
    • Injury prevention
    • Addressing anxiety and depression

      What is a yoga class like?

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      There are many styles of yoga, so classes can vary widely. The connecting factor is that a yoga class will connect your breath with each pose and you’ll often move slowly through each position, with a reminder from the instructor to be present in the class and in each pose. In most yoga classes, you’ll either practice flowing quickly through poses or hold poses for a little longer, while still connecting one to the next.

      Sarrah Strimel, founder of Damn Good Yoga in New York City, who’s certified in four styles of yoga (hatha, vinyasa, restorative, and yin) says her classes are typically 60 to 75 minutes long and begin with a warmup of the spine, joints, ankles, and the muscle groups she’ll focus on during class. As is typical for yoga classes, Strimel works her class toward a challenging peak pose, like a headstand, crow pose, or splits, and then brings the class back down from there.

      Most yoga classes offer props like blocks, straps, or blankets to help you modify and be comfortable in poses. Some yoga teachers weave themes or philosophies into their instruction, related to the asanas they teach (like feeling empowered as you go through a warrior sequence, or having an open heart as you open up your chest in downward facing dog).

      In most yoga classes, you can also expect a relaxing Savasana (or corpse pose) at the end. This is a time to turn down the lights, stretch out on your mat, meditate, listen to soothing sounds or music, and consciously release tension—all things runners can definitely benefit from, and for many yogis, their favorite part of the class.

      Why is yoga good for runners?

      Strimmel says yoga offers runners the opportunity to lengthen and strengthen the muscles that are short and tight. “Yoga is important for runners because it offsets the constant repetitive movement of your stride when you’re running,” says Strimmel. For example your hamstrings contract when you’re running and a regular yoga practice helps stretch out and open up those overused muscles you’re relying on to run, she adds.

      Learning proper breathing techniques, and trying different types of breathing, can also help runners gain more control of their breath, which can be helpful in boosting performance.

      A yoga practice also encourages mindfulness, and this is something that can also benefit your running. Tapping into that awareness of being present and mindful, and remembering that the here and now is important, can help you power through that long run.

      Pilates vs Yoga: The Major Differences

      Pilates hasn’t been around for as long as yoga, but it still has a solid history. No matter what class you take, a good Pilates session will get your core fired up and lend itself to more functional mobility and muscle strengthening. So opt for Pilates if you’re looking specifically to build more strength and muscular endurance, especially in the core.

      With a wide variety of yoga classes, there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking to move quickly and build heat in a power class or wind down, meditate, and stretch it out in a yin or restorative class. Regardless of the intensity, a good yoga class will get your mind relaxed and body feeling loose and limber. Go for yoga if you want something a little more low key and you want to focus on your mindset more, too.

      The Bottom Line on Pilates vs Yoga

      Both yoga and Pilates are great low-impact exercises to add to your cross-training days. Depending on your goals and past injuries, one may suit you better than the other, so set those objectives first.

      It’s always smart to check with your doctor or physical therapist about what might be right for you. Trying out a couple classes and instructors to find the one you like best is also a good option.

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